Black Panther is that rare blockbuster that launched what it feels like a thousand think pieces. And vibranium, the fictitious alloy of alien origins that powers the Black Panther's suit, has carved a particular niche in the pop culture imagination.
It got a professor and a chemist from Southfield's Lawrence Technological University curious: How would the energy-dissolving, sound-absorbing, genetic mutation-inducing super metal measure up to elements from the real world?
In an article published in the Journal of Chemical Education entitled “Black Panther, Vibranium and the Periodic Table,” Dr. Sibrina Collins and LaVetta Appleby posed a set of hypotheticals to a cohort of scientists-in-training. They asked the class of chemistry students to write a short essay on the following: Where would vibranium fall on the periodic table of elements and why? What elemental symbol would it have? What would the shorthand electron configuration be?
The class produced a spectrum of creative and unique answers. Many students assigned vibranium the elemental symbol of "Vb" (the "V" symbol is already assigned to vanadium, which can be found in jet engines and magnets). Other answers reasoned that vibranium would also be placed in the f-block of elements that includes uranium, because of radioactive properties evident in the movie. Another student figured that vibranium would be next to chromium due to the element’s hardness. Collins and Appleby also posed the question to an inorganic chemist who said it should be placed in the b (boron) family of elements also due to Vb’s nuclear potential.
The exercise is useful, the authors write, in getting students to think about the periodic table critically:
The question of where the fictional Vb metal should be placed allows the students to think critically about the arrangement of the periodic table. In general chemistry courses, when we discuss electron configurations, we tell the students there are simply two anomalies, Cu and Cr, because of the stability of half-filled and filled subshells. (In more advanced courses students learn the truth that there are far more exceptions than Cu and Cr!) This discussion allows students to be creative and build on their knowledge base of the periodic table. Students do not typically think beyond the seventh row of the periodic table or the possibility of electrons filling the 6f and 5g subshells. This activity is really asking one key question: What happens when we begin to fill the eighth period of the periodic table?
The authors also praised the film for portraying black women in STEM:
Furthermore, the movie Black Panther also provides a unique opportunity to address the roles of women and people of color in the STEM disciplines. King T’Challa’s younger sister Shuri leads research and development advances for Wakanda. Thus, Shuri, played by actress Letitia Wright, is a shining example for the next generation of STEM leaders
You can read Collins and Appleby's academic paper below:
Eleanore Catolico is a summer intern at Metro Times.
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